Sunday, August 04, 2013


We Will Take a Journey to Greece and Rome

Iris Origo (1902-1988), Images and Shadows (London: John Murray, 1970), pp. 146-148:
At the age of twelve, however, a piece of great good fortune befell me. Bernard Berenson, to whom I shall always be grateful, advised my mother to let me receive a classical education and even supplied her with the name of the brilliant tutor with whom I worked for the next three years, Professor Solone Monti. It was with him that I spent the happiest hours of my girlhood—perhaps the happiest I have ever known.

My first impression as I entered his study was of a haze of smoke, so thick that I could hardly see across the little square room, lined with cheap deal bookshelves, to the desk behind which sat a dark, stocky little man, with dandruff on his collar, and with such thick lenses to his spectacles that they seemed more suited to a windscreen than a human eye.

"Mind those books, signorina," was his greeting, as I stumbled over a pile near the door, "they are meant to be read, not trodden on."

I would have liked to ask why, in that case, great piles of them covered the floors, except that, looking about me, it was plain that there was no other place for them to be, every inch of the walls and tables being already filled.

"Wait a minute, the lexicon can go on to the floor too. Now sit here and we will take a journey to Greece and Rome. You know no Latin? And of course no Greek?"

I shook my head.

"And you have not yet read Dante?"


"And Carducci and Pascoli are just names to you?"

I muttered something about Valentino vestito di nuovo.

"Yes, yes, I dare say," impatiently, "but it's the other Pascoli I mean, the great classical scholar. Well, we shall have a long way to travel—and we'll pick a great many flowers on the way." Then suddenly, explosively, taking off his glasses and gazing straight into my round, startled face, "But you like poetry, in the languages you know? You have read Keats, Shelley, Milton—perhaps some Goethe—perhaps Corneille? You read poetry for pleasure?"

"Yes, oh yes!"

"Then we'll begin. Listen, signorina. All you need to do today is listen."

And he took up Pascoli's Epos—his anthology of Latin epic verse, of which the preface and the notes are still so vividly evocative that (in the words of another great classical scholar, Valgimigli, who had been Pascoli's pupil) 'it was like a fluttering of wings'.

"This is how Pascoli describes the scene—for people like you who cannot yet read Greek:

"Da una parta la pianura scintillante di fuochi, con un cielo sereno di stelle (i Troiani erano all'aperto, in faccia alla loro grande citta, e mille fuochi ardevano, e a ogni fuoco erano cinquanta guerrieri, e i cavalli stavano presso i fuochi, stritolando fra i denti l'orzo bianco e la spelta, e attendevano l'aurora); dall'altra il mare, tutto rumori o bisbigli. Giunti alle capanne e alle navi dei Mirmidoni, giunti a quella capanna, udirono un canto. Era Achille, che accompagnandosi sulla cetra predata, cantava le glorie dei guerrieri."*

Monti put the book down.

"No, you needn't try to make an intelligent comment. I saw that you were listening. Now, this is what one of your English poets, Tennyson, made of it:
"So many a fire between the ships and stream
Of Xanthus blazed before the towers of Troy,
A thousand on the plain, and close by each
Sat fifty in the blaze of burning fire;
And eating hoary grain and pulse the steeds
Fixt by their cars, waited the golden dawn."
He closed the book, took off his spectacles and wiped them.

"That is the world you will see if you learn Greek—even if you get no further than Homer. Do you want to go there? Yes?"—for I was speechless—"I see you do. Well, here is a Greek grammar. Learn the alphabet and the declensions for next time, so that we can start reading at once. You know German, don't you? And what a declension is? Well then, be off with you. Oh, and get a lexicon, too; a small one will do, Homer's vocabulary is very limited—and a Latin dictionary. And here's a Latin grammar; you'd better learn those declensions, too, when you can. We'll start at the beginning on Thursday."

Before I had shut the door behind me, he was immersed in his own book again.

* Pascoli: Introduction to Epos, pp. xvii-xviii.

On one side, the plain shimmering with fires, with a serene, starry sky (the Trojans were in the open, before the great city, and a thousand fires were blazing and by each fire sat fifty warriors, and their horses stood close to the fires, champing the white spelt and oats between their teeth, and waiting for the dawn); on the other side the sea, murmuring and sighing. And when they reached the hut and ships of the Myrmidons, they heard a song. It was Achilles who, as he strummed on the strings of his stolen harp, was extolling his warriors' deeds.

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